Air accident cluster makes travelers fearful; should they worry?


My friend Heni Herewini, who lives in New Zealand contacted me the other day with a question. Her son’s hockey team will be traveling on Malaysia Airlines soon. Was it safe to fly?

Following a week in which three commercial carriers had fatal accidents and the question of what happened to Malaysia Flight 370 continues to baffle, I suspect that many air travelers are wondering the same thing and not just about Malaysia Airlines.

The week before Malaysia Flight 17 was shot out of the sky over the contested area of the Ukraine I was headed to Washington DC on a motor coach, where from my elevated position above the cars, I could see drivers of all ages fiddling with their cell phones. Heck, on an airport shuttle not too long ago, I had to tell the driver not to check his email while steering the van through the congested lanes of the airport.

Safety is an accumulation of knowledge about risk, converted into practice. Some industries do it better than others and in our personal lives we are constantly evaluating. When I opt to put on proper shoes before moving furniture, or take my bike into New York City, I have made a calculation about hazards and risks. Aviation excels at using previous events to prevent or mitigate future accidents. As a result commercial flights are orders of magnitude less likely to result in death than riding my bike in Manhattan.

From the design of the seat to the path the airplane takes, to how much sleep the pilots get, every decision in commercial aviation comes after careful consideration of its impact on safety. But it is not perfect. Below the four broad categories that comprise the air transport system, how they have improved and the holes in the safety net exposed by recent events. Heni, this is for you.

The Machine

Airplane design is now a century old, giving modern plane and engine makers a rich database of failures from which they have created infinitely better machines. From lessons of pressurization learned from the Comet failures in the fifties to fuel tank flammability hazards exposed by TWA Flight 800 and many others, the number of accidents due to mechanical failure keeps diminishing.  Still, innovation by its nature means novel and original and therefore untried.

The two newest airliners; the Airbus A380 jumbo jet and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner have both experienced troubling events. In the case of Qantas Flight 32 in 2010, an uncontained engine failure destroyed vital systems before the plane departed Singapore with 469 people on board. It took five pilots more than 2 hours to get the plane safely back on the ground. The Dreamliner was grounded for nearly 4 months in 2013 after two fires on lithium ion batteries on Japanese airliners.

The Human

The making of airline pilots is serious business. Airlines screen them, train them and monitor them. They are subject to government regulations and frequent medical exams. Their work environment is specifically designed for them; ergonomic cockpits with well-thought out controls, displays and alarms.

In spite of all this thought, human error, technology confusion and complacency continue to play a role in air accidents. There is a disconnect between the increasingly complex, computerized fly-by-wire planes and the pilots who operate them. Confusion about the technology or losing touch with the process of flying, what the old guys call “stick-and-rudder-skills” were factors in most of the high-profile crashes of the past few years from Colgan Airlines 3407 in 2009 to Asiana 214 in 2013.

The Environment

The world’s air space has also become safer with new digital and GPS technology and the linking of on-board and on-the-ground systems that set planes in highways in the sky where nobody veers out of their lane. Tracking of flights and effective in-flight re-routing based on as-it-happens events helps prevent in-flight collisions and accidents due to weather (though IATA/ICAO are poised to recommend a tracking enhancement).

Preliminary information from Malaysia 17, however, exposes a weak point; information about ground-based threats does not seem to be making its way to the decision makers in governments or at airlines. The industry must address who is responsible for assuring a plane’s route is secure when flying over the world’s hotspots.

The Worst Case

Many air travelers consider space, comfort and seat mate as the three most important factors on a flight. But from a safety standpoint, in the unlikely event of an accident, it’s better to think about how your seat will function in a sudden stop, how the belt will restrain you, how the seat back will protect your head and extremities and who is there to help direct everyone to get out of the airplane.

The simple fact is that even in cases where things go terribly wrong, the vast majority of air accidents are survivable and the credit for that goes to improvements in cabin interiors and the presence of trained emergency responders – also known as flight attendants. On its failed approach to San Francisco last summer, Asiana 214 lost its tail at the runway edge, pivoted up on a dramatic angle and spun around like the hands on a clock before slamming into the runway. Still, of 294 people on the plane only 2 died from injuries sustained in the accident. The cabin design and heroic flight attendants did their jobs well.

“Accidents are statistically anomalies,” Bill Waldock, a professor of Safety Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University once told me. “They happen so infrequently you don’t get a clear picture.”

The same can be said of an accident cluster like what we have just experienced, it creates a distorted picture. Aviation has initiated some of the most profound improvements in risk management, human performance and survivability. To assume that an industry with a record as good as aviation is somehow a dangerous way to travel is illogical and incorrect.

So if you want to worry, best to fret about how you get to the airport. Chances are you’ll pass quite a few people on the road who are tweeting, texting and otherwise driving in a manner that could get the both of you killed before you ever board the airplane.